Price-gouging on public records disrespects public

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For those who have not followed the reporting in recent weeks by this newspaper regarding our request for public emails and texts from the town of Youngsville pertaining to the sudden retirement of Youngsville Police Chief Daren Kirts and firing of police department administrator Mellisa “Missy” Dillard, here’s an update.

The sad reality is we’re no closer to obtaining those records — which are ours, and yours, by law — than when we first reported on this issue in our July 12 edition. And the response, or lack thereof, by Youngsville leaders after we broke the story doesn’t exactly paint the town in a positive light. But we’ll get to that later.

Regardless if the cost of seeing those emails is $70,000, as we were told by Youngsville Town Administrator Phil Cordeiro and Town Attorney Edward Bartholomew a couple weeks ago, or around $15,000, which we learned when we followed up with Cordeiro after our first story, the premise of our stance remains the same — these exorbitant amounts are well beyond the capacity that we, or really any other small-town newspaper, could reasonably pay. To expect us to pay any of these amounts to access them should alarm the people who call the Youngsville community home.

We understand there is a privacy issue regarding our request, as Cordeiro has cited as one of his chief concerns. As he told the News & Observer (the newspaper interviewed Cordeiro and members of The Wake Weekly newsroom after our story was published) there is nonpublic information, such as employees’ medical records, that should be withheld. We agree, and that’s not the type of information we were looking for when we made our original request.

However, Cordeiro is wrong when he says this newspaper should bear the cost of identifying which records concern Kirts and Dillard and removing the nonpublic information.

“I still want to provide the records to The Wake Weekly,” Cordeiro told the News & Observer for its story. “The question is who should bear the cost?”

The answer is the town of Youngsville — not this newspaper.

Brooks Fuller, the director of the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University, told us earlier this month that the town should not be able to pass along any of the attorney’s costs because his work would involve making redactions. Public records law does not allow public agencies to charge for separating private information from public documents.

There are other reasons for the “astronomical” (according to Fuller and other experts who specialize in public records matters) bill we were sent, such as the cost to hire an information technology company to comb through the emails, but those hold even less validity.

Cordeiro told us based on information from the town’s contracted information technology company, Systech, the “total time to set up the process and generate a digital record sufficient for the town attorney to receive, review, and redact would be 45 hours.” Systech would charge $110 per hour, or $4,950 total, and the process would take about two weeks.

The News & Observer spoke with Mike Tadych, a lawyer who deals with public records issues, and he said the town was “needlessly complicating the records search.” Tadych went on to say, “Cordeiro should be able to quickly search his own email to identify the necessary records, and it shouldn’t take as long to review them as he estimated.”

He added, “You guys [the News & Observer] make public records requests of far greater breadth, and nobody bats an eye.”

Based on conversations with multiple experts, in addition to the information reported by the News & Observer, we feel even stronger about our right — and your right — to the public records that we requested. But so far, Youngsville’s leaders have been relatively mum.

This newspaper has reached out to the Youngsville Board of Commissioners and mayor. Few phone calls seeking comment about the fee were returned. We spoke to Commissioners Larry Wiggins and Joe Johnson, who both declined to comment and referred questions to Cordeiro.

“All the communication needs to go through Phil,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any dealings with the day-to-day going-ons of the town. I don’t care to know it.”

We are sure Youngsville’s residents will be disappointed to hear that some of its leaders would rather bury their heads in the sand rather than fight for the taxpayers’ right to public information. We, on the other hand, will continue to ask the important questions in order to discover the answers.